Bench Reporter Archives California Tentative Rulings Into a Searchable Database

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California lawyers will be interested to learn about a new site, Bench Reporter, which archives thousands of Superior Court Tentative Rulings (primarily from Los Angeles County). Tentative Rulings were introduced in the 1960s in Los Angeles. They later expanded to other counties. Judges are not required to use Tentative Rulings. (See California Rule of Court 3.1308 to learn what procedure your court follows with respect to Tentative Rulings).

The site allows you to search its collection of Tentative Rulings simultaneously through multiple counties. It allows you to further refine your search with filters, by county, judge, or tag. The cost to access the collection is $39.00 per month. Since most Tentative Rulings are not available anywhere else, Bench Reporter has the potential to be a very useful site. **Readers of this site can save $10 off their first month's subscription using the discount code ifl.

 

Coverage: Dates and Geographic

The site is vague about its date coverage range, saying, “We began collecting tentative rulings many years ago. Having invested countless resources over that span, we amassed more than 10,000 tentative rulings.*” The asterisk leads to a disclaimer that reads, “not all 10,000 rulings are available at this time, but more are added nearly every day.” Most of the Tentative Rulings we found are from recent years. We did retrieve a few from as far back as 2008.

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Currently, the site includes Tentative Rulings from the following California counties:

·      Contra Costa County Superior Court

·      Los Angeles County Superior Court

·      Orange County Superior Court

·      Sacramento County Superior Court

·      San Diego County Superior Court

·      San Francisco County Superior Court

·      Santa Clara County Superior Court

·      Sonoma County Superior Court

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Why Tentative Rulings Could Be Useful

 

As most California attorneys know, it is NOT acceptable to cite to a Tentative Ruling, absent exceptionally rare circumstances. So if Tentative Rulings cannot be cited as authority (and might not even become the final ruling), why research them you might ask, as I did in an e-mail interview with the co-founder of the site, Benjamin Berger (from the law firm of Berger Harrison, APC in Irvine, California)? He explained that:

·      The purpose of studying tentative rulings is to gain insight as to how judges evaluate certain issues.  Whether a tentative becomes final or not, it will provide insight you cannot get anywhere else. [Note from author: Bench Reporter does not indicate whether a Tentative Ruling became the final ruling.]

·      While a tentative ruling will set forth the court’s analysis, a final ruling (even where the tentative is adopted) is often boiled down to a short and simple order.  For example, a judge may issue a tentative ruling that spends several pages examining the facts and law, then issue a final ruling as short as this:  “Motion granted as to the 3rd and 4th cause of action.  20 days leave to amend.”  Critically, in most counties, the tentative ruling vanishes soon after the hearing and is not available anywhere thereafter (except for Bench Reporter).  For this reason, far more can be learned from the tentative ruling than from the final ruling. 

·      Most tentative rulings do become the final ruling.  For the small minority of instances where the tentative was not adopted, it is unlikely that the change would upset the analysis set forth in the tentative.  All this being said, our site provides a supplemental method of research. 

 

In addition, the site explains the usefulness of Tentative Rulings this way:

•  illustrate how a particular judge has handled specific issues in the past

•  reveal which cases your judge finds most persuasive on a given topic

• address issues for which there is little or no appellate authority

•  provide a quick overview of issues you’re not familiar with

•  help you prepare an opposition to a motion you’ve never faced

•  lead you to copies of moving papers that will be vital to your research

•  provide insight regarding a judge’s interpretation of ambiguous precedent

 

How To Search

The site is best-formatted for use from a desktop/laptop computer or some larger tablets. It’s not made for small screens. The search panel is divided vertically, with the search column on the left and the list of search results in the right-hand column. The search panel allows you to set a variety of search criteria which can be mixed and matched. For example, you can search using free-text, and/or you can filter by judge/county, and/or tags (e.g., demurrer), and/or date. 

 

Full-Text “Search Term” Search

The search function searches the body of the rulings, as well as the case names. It works similarly to the Google Web Search. You can search with one or more words, or exact phrases, or you can search by mixing an exact phrase and one or more additional words. The default will be to connect multiple words with an “AND” Boolean connector, so the site will return rulings which contain all of the words.  

 

Judge/County Filters

If your goal is to read every available ruling by a particular judge, regardless of topic, you could search without any search terms by filtering first by county and then by selecting a judge from the list. To search rulings on a particular topic by a particular judge, enter words/phrases into the “Search term” Search box and filter by judge. Sometimes a ruling may be attributed to a judge who did not actually write the ruling; this would happen when another judge fills in for a vacationing judge.  

 

Tag Filters

You can also filter by Tags, which are pre-defined labels assigned by the site owners to help you locate a ruling when the judge hasn’t used the same word or phrase that you are using in your search.  As explained by the site owners, “Ideally, tags categorize rulings which may be hard to find otherwise.  A ruling may deal with a topic but never use the term or phrase you might search for. For example, a ruling may say ‘slip and fall’ or ‘landlord liability’ but never use the term ‘premises liability.’  By tagging the ruling with ‘premises liability,’ the user is more likely to find it.”  The tags that apply to each ruling can be viewed in the footer of each ruling.

The Bench Reporter site owners note that, “Tagging rulings takes a great deal of attorney time.  We’d like to crowdsource this task.  If you think one or more tags are appropriate for a given ruling, please enter your suggestions in the comments section of that ruling (found at the bottom of the page for every ruling).” The site owners also welcome submissions of Tentative Rulings from other lawyers, which they will add to the database.

 

Date Filters

You can enter a specific range of dates by entering dates into both the Start box and the End box. If you enter a date into only the first box, it will return rulings dated that date and later and if you enter a date into only the second box, it will return rulings dated that date and earlier. Once you retrieve your list of results, you can sort alphabetically or by date.

 

Will Tentative Rulings Be Useful To You?

Bench Reporter’s founders explain that, “No matter what county you are in, there is much to be learned from trial court judges applying California law.  Much like sitting through several hearings waiting for your own case to be called, a California litigator simply cannot explore these rulings without gaining valuable insight.”

 

 

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